3 Ways We Confuse Emotions with Emotional Intelligence

It often surprises my executive coaching clients how important their emotions are to their workplace success. Most of us have been trained to keep our emotions out of the office, so we let lag an ongoing investment in our Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Part of the problem is that investing in developing EQ is work that doesn’t always have an immediate payoff, and most of us are focused on results now! But part of the problem is a fundamental misunderstanding about what EQ is. EQ is not having emotions, it’s understanding them, in ourselves and others and responding constructively.

We all have emotions, but most of us carry around errant assumptions and beliefs about them that cloud our ability to use them appropriately at work. Here are three common examples of misguided EQ that apply, whether it’s us or someone else who’s experiencing and/or expressing emotions.

1. Strong emotions = I can’t handle it.

Muted emotions are easy to ignore if you’re not sure how to react to them. Strong emotions are harder to ignore. Instead of learning how to understand and respond to strong emotions in the workplace, many of us believe they have no place in the office and assume that if someone expresses strong emotions, they “can’t handle it.” This plays out often between men and women. Women are socialized to be more comfortable expressing emotions generally, and because they have more experience they often know that expressing emotions is an awesome strategy for “handling it.”

Expressing strong emotions allows a feeling to be noticed, honored and put into proper perspective. Does this mean it’s not wise to close your door or scurry to the car to let out some rage or grief? No. That’s a fine strategy. But if you do this – or observe someone in their car sobbing and back at their desk smiling an hour later – understand that they (and you!) are probably “handling it” just fine. If you choose to respond, please demonstrate empathy.

Many of us believe they have no place in the office and assume that if someone expresses strong emotions, they “can’t handle it.”

2. Empathy = Approval.

Sometimes bad things happen to people we work with. Sometimes people we work with make bad choices or encounter bad luck with people or situations are in their life. Sometimes they need to talk about it, or express strong emotions, to get refocused on work and sometimes we have to listen because we’re the person they have to tell. Sometimes we make the poor choice to express our negative judgments about their situation, completely disowning their feelings and making them feel isolated. Sometimes we make the poor choice to express our complete support and say “I feel that way too,” which takes ownership of their feelings and makes them feel less unique in that moment.

Why do we do this? Why do we tell them that they are so misguided or totally right? Why do we sometimes withhold our words, but let our body and face communicate our feelings for us? Why do we feel as though we must feel what they feel – or not? Often it’s because we believe that if we don’t express disapproval, they’ll believe we approve of how they are handling it; or if we approve, we worry they’ll think we disapprove if we don’t overtly approve. But does all this judgment help the people who are struggling to refocus? Often it doesn’t. More often than not they simply need us to be a sounding board or vent-ear.

We believe that if we don’t express disapproval, they’ll believe we approve of how they are handling it; or if we approve, we worry they’ll think we disapprove if we don’t overtly approve. But does all this judgment help the people who are struggling to refocus?

Practice empathy by listening, deciding how you feel about it, keeping this information to yourself and – knowing they are not you – acknowledge that their situation is their situation and how they feel is simply how they feel. Be in this state of acknowledgement and tell them you know they feel _________ and that you’re there to support them within the boundaries that you can. You get to decide what those boundaries are.

Acknowledging their feelings does not mean you approve of them, whether you do or not.

3. Joy Doesn’t Happen At Work

There’s a spontaneity about joy that often doesn’t “fit” in the planned, focused and driven culture of the workplace. We all really want joy in our lives, but most of us believe that work is work, and that work is the opposite of joy and thus we assume that we won’t find joy in the office. As a result we don’t look for it. Because we don’t look for it, we don’t find it. Because we don’t find it, we don’t nurture it. Soon our workplaces are joyless.

Joy isn’t about spontaneity, it’s about seeing the positive in whatever moment or situation is at hand, and in every moment we can find something positive if we look for it. Joyful people can feel intensely alive in the midst of tragedy. One key strategy of the person with EQ is to see a joyless workplace as a ripe place to discover joy. In a world of zeroes, a one goes a long way.

The truly EQ people always find a way to nurture joy, even in the darkest of times and places. Sometimes this feels like love. Even at work.

To explore more strategies for building your emotional intelligence at work, join our Free-To-All Coaching Call on November 21 in the InPower Coffee Break Community.

 

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Executive Coach, women's leadership advocate & founder of InPowerCoaching.com, Dana cracks the code on personal power to help women and men forge their leadership identity & mindset. Follow her at www.InPowerWomen.com, www.InPowerCoaching.com, www.Danatheus.com, and @DanaTheus on Twitter

  • Great issue, Dana. Certainly one that is wildly misunderstood. I would like to add to the good advice you have given.

    Emotions are generated from our values. We all believe in exactly the same values meaning we all have the same good values and believe that their opposites are bad. Because of our upbringing, we develop different standards for those values. We use those value standards to judge everything we experience. Those judgements drive what we call emotions, feeling good about something or bad about it and how much feeling.

    For instance, on a scale of 1 to 10 if I have grown up in a family with little love I might have a standard of 2 for love while you having grown up in a family with lots of love might have a standard of 8. If we both experience an event reflecting a standard of 5 for love, I will judge it really good while you judge it poor. If we both experience an event reflecting a 10, I may cry with joy while you judge it really great but don’t cry. For a standard of minus 3 (hate), I with my 2 will judge it bad but not too bad while you will judge it terrible and may get very emotionally negative about it and start vocalizing your disgust.

    The same applies to all values such as respect, openness, honesty, knowledge, compassion, fortitude, perseverance, caring, courtesy, quality, and safety. So when a person is driven by their judgements to voice them either positively or negatively, this outpouring of emotion is just their judgement of what they have experienced and something management ignores at its own peril. Why do people people become demoralized? Because they have judged that they have been treated with great disrespect in an environment they cannot escape. So how loud we get (our emotion) just reflects the amount of difference between our standard for a particular value and the standard reflected in the event we are experiencing.

    So I call our emotions our “good – bad compass” because the compass tells us exactly how good or bad something is. Emotions are very, very valuable to living the best life we can. Unfortunately, while the uneducated masses still have working compasses, most educated folks have stopped listening to their compass and rely totally on their rational brain to figure out right from wrong. Whereas the compass is never wrong, the rational brain has no way to figure out right from wrong. Without a well tuned compass, there is no way to realize how terrible the command and control approach to managing people can be. For example, I am sure that the Popes who convinced Christians to undertake an effort to “kill those people over there” in the Crusades had lost their compasses.

    Understanding the above is key to understanding your own emotions and the effect your actions have on others, the effect of your leadership.

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